Watchdog warns of media duplicity in Burma

Despite talk of political reform in Burma, the country’s media landscape remains heavily monitored and the environment for independent journalists is as risky as ever, a new report claims.

Continued censorship and harassment of non-state media workers suggests that pledges by the government to lift tight restrictions on the media sector are superficial, and should not be taken at face value, according to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

The group’s senior Southeast Asia representative and author of ‘In Burma, transition neglects press freedom’, Shawn Crispin, said in a press release that the environment continues to be “arbitrary, intensive, and highly restrictive”.

In recent months the government has made several amendments to laws that have traditionally placed Burma at the tail-end of press freedom indexes, such as the recent lifting of a ban on accessing websites such as DVB and The Irrawaddy. These have caused a number of countries to speculate that the environment is beginning to open up.

Yet at the same time, the criminalisation of independent journalists continues: last week the 21-year-old DVB reporter Sithu Zeya, who is already serving an eight-year jail term, had his sentenced extended by a decade under the Electronics Act.

Media watchdogs, such as CPJ and the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders, responded to the news with anger, claiming it showed that little had changed since the nominally civilian government came to power in March.

The CPJ report noted that since the elections in November last year, “two journalists have been sentenced to prison terms of almost 20 years, and more than a dozen publications have been suspended for their news reporting.”

One magazine that published a full-page photograph of Aung San Suu Kyi earlier this month was suspended for a week, allegedly for violating new laws introduced after publications gave substantial coverage to the opposition icon following her release last year.

The edition was published through a fast-track censorship system whereby breaking news can be submitted to the censor board the night before publication date, rather than the traditional method which can take up to a week. Prior to the suspension of The Messenger, the amendment had been hailed as a positive step.

Crispin also sounded a warning to international donors who have for years supported exiled media like DVB, but who now appear to be shifting their focus to in-country groups working under the banner of “civil society”.

The funding cuts have pushed a number of exiled news organisations to significantly reduce operations, while CPJ notes that the move also risks “casting many journalists and their families into uncertain futures and possible forced repatriation” as groups are forced to cut staff numbers.

“Until new freedoms take hold, exile media continues to serve as a vital source of credible, independent information on developments within Burma and should not be abandoned by donor countries,” he said.

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